Pure Blind Region, X-7OMU System, The Sanctuary School, X-7OMU II M7, YC112.07.07
Zakari Kovalis stepped out of his ready room still fiddling with the seal-tight fastener on his capsule suit. He looked at his watch then remembered he wasn't wearing one. After all, he was in his capsule suit. For a capsuleer, Zakari was both old-fashioned and somewhat absent-minded, particularly outside the element that was, if not exactly natural, the one heʼd made his own: the ultraconnected, fluid-filled world of the capsule. By an act of will he brought up the time readout in its customary corner of his inner vision. Just past noon, plenty of time.
Zakariʼs ready room was close by the secure hangar bay that his ship rested in and he passed through the internal lock to the bay a few minutes later. There she was, the Katydid, his ship and his real home. The Cheetah class frigate was still swaddled by service gantries but her lines were clear enough. The shipʼs weathered but distinctive Thukker colors made a contrast with the advanced connectors and special equipment being run into and alongside her. Zakari shook his head slightly and stepped down from the lock entrance to the hangar floor.
The Cheetah class frigates were developed by the Thukker tribe, Zakariʼs own people, as a flexible platform for covert operations, reconnaissance, and exploration duties. The Katydid was currently rigged as a deep-space exploration vessel. Zakari could see a few technicians huddled around the consoles that controlled the tuning of the scanner probe packages. Right in the middle of them was Taya Akira, one of the Sanctuary Schoolʼs experts on unstable, yet traversable, wormholes. Zakari smiled to himself and walked over to the island of consoles.
“Still arguing about how narrow a range of resonance frequencies in exahertz the probes should be tuned to or whatever it is?” asked Zakari as he caught Taya Akiraʼs eye. The young Sisters of EVE scientist rolled her eyes and waved him away. Zakari smiled and watched her a moment longer before strolling toward the ship. He didnʼt need to know the fine details; he launched the probes and set their search patterns. He had a good eye for narrowing in on probe hits but setting up these custom-scanning packages was not his field at all.
The Katydidʼs engineering section was accessible via a gantry and he decided to go in that way. Inside, he nodded to his flight engineer, Jubal Hrada, a taciturn man of vast experience drawn from working on many different ships in the Vo-Lakat caravanʼs exploration fleet.
“Howʼs it going, Jubal?”
“Sheʼll fly, Zakari.”
Zakari nodded and left the engineer to it. Jubal Hrada had lost a lot of family when the Lakat-Hro Great Caravan disappeared back during the unstable wormholes incident of YC111. In a sense, everyone in the Vo-Lakat caravan, an offshoot of the larger nomadic fleet, had lost family. Jubal's loss was a lot closer to home though. He'd still been Lakat-Hro at the time, just jobbing with the Vo-Lakat. His wife and children went missing with all the rest when the Lakat-Hro fleet disappeared in the SL-YBS system at the same time its star suffered a "main sequence anomaly."
Zakari had been to SL-YBS with the other searchers and seen what was left of the first planet. He was of the considered opinion that "main sequence anomaly" was putting what had happened pretty mildly. The disappearance of the mother caravan in that star system was only the beginning of a great upheaval for the Vo-Lakat. The caravan took in the scattered surviving members of the Lakat-Hro as a matter of course.
Leaving engineering, Zakari went up to the crew area to make sure everything was in order. The ship had been modified a lot over the years and was equipped to carry specialist expedition teams alongside the small ship’s crew.
The crew proper amounted to Jubal and whoever shipped with them as a tech for the mission. A woman named Ava Sosek had come out to the Sanctuary with them on this job. She was an astrometrics tech and very experienced in the data analysis side of that work. Zakari and his automated systems took care of the rest of the ship’s business. The capsule interface typically cut out crew requirements onboard frigates, unless skilled personnel were required for a specific sortie.
The Sisters were covering the expedition team side of things, as well as providing a wormhole-mapping specialist. Which was where Taya came in. Zakari glanced down the corridor leading to the sleeping quarters. He smiled wryly and continued forward. He especially wanted to check the survey command center in the prow.
The Katydid was an old mark of the Cheetah class and Zakari had piloted it in service of the Vo-Lakat exploratory corps for several years. The prow of the Katydid contained a lot of custom sensor equipment but its standout feature was the enlarged command center. You had to reach it through a crawl-way, but there was room in there for two.
The main purpose of the center was coordination of survey and exploration missions, particularly those involving expedition teams. As far as Zakari knew, Taya would be up here on her own, just as she had been on the last five runs. The Sanctuary scientist and her team operated on the basis that she was in charge as far as Zakari could tell.
Zakari looked around the cramped space, checked the diagnostics on the armored shutters closed over the sapphire glass viewports. He shook his head. Being a capsuleer could have some strange psychological effects including a paradoxical hybrid of agoraphobia and claustrophobia. Zakari suspected he had a mild case of it. Zakari glanced at the crawl-way light—it was out, nobody coming up—and set off back down towardsthe ship’s core.
Zakari quickly made his way to the crew embarkation lock, cycled through, and rode the gantry elevator down to the hangar floor. He looked over at the consoles again, saw Taya and the technicians were still hard at it, and walked back across.
“The Katydid’s ready to fly, Taya. I’ll be going under and loading up in ten minutes.”
Taya Akira looked up blankly, nodded shortly after visibly replaying his words in her mind, and bent back to her work. Zakari shrugged to himself and headed for the hangar’s capsule gantry.
The Sanctuary School, X-7OMU II M7, Cheetah class frigate Katydid, YC112.07.07
Lying back in the encapsulation prep couch, Zakari smiled to himself as he pondered the inscrutable Sister Taya. Smart connectors locked into his spinal implants and the skeletal couch raised him up into the waiting capsule where a series of handler arms gently took hold of him. The couch withdrew, the smart connectors pulled in most of their slack, and the capsule sealed itself.
Zakari took a breath, and then exhaled steadily, emptying his lungs as the capsule fluid poured in. He held his breath until the hyperoxygenated suspension fluid covered his head, and then inhaled deeply. His adapted throat and nose tissues responded to specific chemical cues in the fluid to suppress the usual reflexes that would resist water entering the windpipe. In a heart's beat he was breathing the fluid as calmly and easily as he would breathe air.
When the capsule's internal monitors confirmed that all was well with Zakari's vitals after the respiratory transition, the gantry's handling mechanisms lifted the great egg-shaped fusion of man and machine up and toward the waiting capsule port of the Katydid. The large port behind the bulky "sail" of the ship accepted the capsule and the ship's internal handlers took over, guiding the precious cargo inside. Behind it multiple bulkheads sealed off and the outer port closed as a heavily armored door swung home and locked itself into place with internal bolts.
Zakari became one with the ship, in a way that nobody but another capsuleer could truly appreciate; his body sense fell away and the ship sense came over him. The capsule had completed its connection routines and was now enclosed in a sheath of armor within this most central of chambers.
Zakari's biological systems were now profoundly connected and integrated with the Katydid. In a sense, a very real sense, Zakari Kovalis was now a Cheetah class covert operations frigate called the Katydid.
Zakari sent the ready signal and opened a channel to speak to Sister Taya Akira. Or rather, Zakari's will to speak to the Sanctuary scientist was translated into the Katydid's comms connecting with Taya's aural implant and converting his thoughts into words that she seemed to hear as if from an earphone.
“Ready to go, Sister Taya. Finished up with the scanner packages yet?”
“We’re done here. The team is boarding now. Mission parameters are unchanged. Launch at your discretion, Captain Kovalis.”
Zakari watched through his ship sensors as the Sanctuary expedition team filed into the crew area and made ready for launch. Taya was on her way to the prow command center, which was typical, as much as he didn’t like her being in the crawlspace during launch. He decided to wait until she was in the command center before launching.
When Taya had settled into her station, Zakari fired up the engines, increasing power to the deflection fields to lift the ship as low pulses of main engine power propelled the ship forward and out to the exit channel. Navigating freely now, the Katydid headed for the primary exit port, pinging a formal departure handshake to one of the station’s flight controllers in passing.
The frigate powered out of the station and immediately began to align on a heading to a specific location within the X-7OMU system. Katydid entered warp moments after lining up with the target coordinates and accelerated to several AU per second for a short coast before decelerating. The ship dropped out of warp after barely a minute of faster-than-light travel.
Zakari launched a full spread of scanner probes while putting the ship into a random alignment away from the previous line of travel. He activated the ship’s cloaking device as soon as the probes were launched and set to work coordinating the probes in a pattern designed to locate unstable wormholes as quickly as possible.
“Probes are away. We are under cloak. Scanning sequence begins now,” sent Zakari to Taya Akira.
“Understood. Probe packages are performing as expected. Specific wormhole resonances are being filtered.”
“I have a hit at volume coordinates on your tracking readout. Narrowing down for signature lock.”
“Your hit is a strong candidate for mission parameters. Entering this in the mission log as provisional candidate six.”
Zakari’s mouth quirked in a wry smile, even as deep in ship sense as he was. Taya was as keen today as on the first mission they’d flown together.
“I read you. I have a green signature, warp drive locked on.”
“Take us to visual range, please.”
Zakari initiated warp to the signature location, bringing the Katydid to 10 km from the mouth of the wormhole the probes had detected. From his own readouts he could tell this was a wormhole with a signature of the type their mission was tasked with finding and surveying.
“Looks like a confirmed candidate to me, Sister Taya,” he sent to the scientist. Through the comms pickups in the command center he watched as Taya studied her displays before nodding to herself and responding.
“Agreed. Logging as confirmed candidate six. Proceed at your discretion, Captain Kovalis.”
“Acknowledged. Taking us in.”
Unknown Region, Candidate System Six, Cheetah class frigate Katydid, YC112.07.08
They'd been surveying Candidate System Six for the better part of twelve hours and Zakari could tell the entire crew was in need of a break. It was becoming apparent to all that Candidate Six was not the hoped for "wormhole nexus" system that the Sanctuary School had been searching for over the past several months.
For his own part, Zakari had become convinced that Candidate Six was a bust about an hour after they’d gone through. Like other candidate systems it had the blue A0 class sun. Usually the innermost planet or two were shattered. This one had a single shattered planet orbiting close in, while the others were various rocky or icy but intact globes. There were also many signs of Sleeper activity and Talocan ruins popping up on the probe scan results. But that was just it—there was nothing different and something told Zakari this was just another in a series of failed candidates.
The expedition team had been hard at work on their screens, and up in the prow command center, analyzing the data that the ship’s sensors and scan probes were pouring into the computer systems. All to no avail other than to confirm that the system was another of the unusual type with wormhole connections permitting very low “mass packet transmission,” a fancy way of saying that the things would only allow very small ships through. This aspect of certain hard-to-find systems on the unstable wormhole network was a key reason for using a ship like the Katydid.
Zakari was about to call for a shipwide rest period when Ava Sosek pinged him. The astrometrics tech hadn’t had a lot to say so far. He took the call guessing she’d reached similar conclusions to him and intended to say as much.
“Zakari here. What’s up, Ava?”
“I’ve been going over the data streams, Captain. It’s much the same kind of thing as before but there’s one transmission I think you should take a look at.”
“Oh? Flag the isolated data for me then. I’ll check it now. I was about to call a rest.” Zakari’s curiosity was piqued, as transmissions were not exactly unusual in these systems. There were plenty of Sleeper structures and drones sending out a lot of data. Not to mention some of the older stuff, the Talocan ruins and such, transmitted all sorts of crap. Well, probably not crap from Taya’s point of view, he supposed.
“Already flagged it for you. Isolated data stream VK947-YC1120706-KCS6.”
“Got it.” Zakari looked over the data in his virtual display and mentally did a double take. Marveling at Ava Sosek’s sang-froid at merely suggesting he take a look at this transmission, Zakari contacted the tech. “I see why you wanted me to look at this. If I’m reading correctly, this is a distress beacon from one of the Lakat-Hro caravan’s Nomad class freighters. That about right?”
“That’s the size of it, Captain. It’s an active signal too. Signal power is pretty low though. I’d reckon it’s at the level you’d see after the beacon had been on for a year or so without reactor power.”
“A year or so. You realize what you’re saying?” Zakari thought about the disappearance of the Lakat-Hro Great Caravan back in March YC111. A little over a year ago.
“I’m just an astrometrics data tech, Captain.”
“Right and I’m just a pet coral squid. Have you told Jubal about this?”
“Hells no! I might be new on this ship but everyone in the exploration fleet knows Jubal’s story.”
“Good. We are going to check this out but I’d rather not have him going off half-cocked. I need to figure out a mission change with Sister Taya, and then have a plan to put in front of him. What about you? Any connections?”
“Some friends, very distant family and all that. Nothing immediate though. My folks were with the Vo-Lakat when they split off.”
“Right. Well, my mob joined up from the Hrada-Oki. Looking for a better life and all that.”
“Clanner, eh? Hrada-Oki? Smugglers, aren’t they?”
“Mostly. I won’t deny they’ve done some warm work but at least they’re not the fucking Seykal.”
“I hear you. This transmission though, I’m pretty sure we can get a quick fix if you task a flight of probes on it. We’ll probably need to use combats though.” Ava was referring to combat probes, the name for probes capable of efficiently hunting down ships. Such was the nature of New Eden—these were most often used for finding hostile targets, hence the name. Zakari thought that was about right, even for as big a ship as a Nomad class, and was glad of the expanded launcher and spare flight of combat probes he’d brought along.
“I’ll launch them now. Give their telemetry priority. I’ll have to discuss next steps with Sister Taya.”
Zakari took a moment to consider the implications of this discovery. When the Lakat-Hro Great Caravan had disappeared during the wormhole incident back in YC111, the assumption had been that the entire fleet had been taken out when the SL-YBS system’s central star blasted off enough stellar material to shatter the first planet. Only those few who survived elsewhere and were desperately clinging on to hope believed otherwise. Them and the usual grab bag of kooks and conspiracy theorists claiming everything from Sansha’s Nation kidnapping the caravan en masse to, well, the Lakat-Hro escaping through a wormhole. Could it really be?
“Sister Taya, I have something I need to discuss with you. Can we meet up in the virtuality?” Zakari felt that this conversation needed to be as face-to-face as possible.
“Is that necessary, Captain?” Taya Akira sounded irritable, which wasn’t surprising given she’d been at it for a twelve-hour stretch.
“I’m afraid so. I’ll be able to go over the data Ava has put together more thoroughly.”
“Ava? Has she found something my team missed?”
“Your team wasn’t looking for what she found. I’ll explain it in the virtuality.” Zakari watched through sensors as Taya stood up and arched her back with hands at her hips.
“Very well. I’ll meet you in there momentarily.”
Zakari lost no time in transferring to the virtuality, allowing his ship sense to recede as his consciousness focused on the artifice of a virtual world, while the Katydid was taken care of by a kind of capsuleer’s autonomic system. Sister Taya appeared in the simulation a second or two later.
“Okay, Captain Kovalis, just what is so important and so complicated that we need to meet in here?” Taya waved her hand around the room they appeared to be standing in. This was a handsomely equipped data analysis laboratory, furnished with all manner of screens and holoboards. A large holography table in the center of the lab dominated all of this. The two of them were standing on either side of its long axis.
“This is a simulation of the main sequence anomaly experienced by the primary of SL-YBS on YC111.03.10, in which event the Lakat-Hro Great Caravan is believed to have been lost.” Zakari gestured at the holography table as it sprang into life and played through the convulsion of the star and the mass ejection that shattered the inner planet of the system.
“Yes, I’m quite familiar with all of the events of that day. I assume you have some pertinent reason for bringing up that aspect in particular?”
“You could say that. You’re now seeing a holorecording of the Nomad class freighter Farvoyer.” Zakari indicated the slowly rotating representation. “She was part of the Lakat-Hro caravan’s supply fleet, equipped as standard with a jump drive. As far as the records show, she was with the main body of the caravan when SL-YBS blew up.”
“The star did not blow up,” said Sister Taya exasperatedly. “What has this all got to do with our mission?”
“The Farvoyer’s distress beacon is broadcasting from somewhere in this system. We have it narrowed down to a volume of space close to the outermost planet. The beacon that’s transmitting is built into the ship.” Zakari could tell that this revelation had given Taya pause. The Sanctuary scientist was startled for a moment but quickly hid it.
“That’s certainly interesting but there are many possible explanations for such signals.”
“I’m inclined to assume the simplest explanation and that is the presence of the Farvoyer, or at least some part of it, in this system. On that assumption, I’m exercising my prerogative as captain to investigate the matter. I’d add that I take the customary duty to respond to a distress call or signal very seriously, regardless of the fact that this signal is from a ship belonging to my tribe.”
“Very well. I can see that it’s useless to dispute the matter with you,” sighed Taya Akira. She put a hand to her forehead and closed her eyes for a moment. “In fact, my team should probably get some rest. I would imagine you and your key crew would be able to handle this.”
“Exactly. My people won’t rest until we figure out what this really is. We’ll be fine though. You and the expedition team should get some rack time in.”
“Fine. If this should turn out to be something more than a sensor ghost or a wormhole-boosted signal echo, well, please wake me.”
“I will,” promised Zakari.
Candidate System Six, vicinity of fifth planet, Cheetah class frigate Katydid, YC112.07.08
The Katydid banked as it maintained its close orbit around the slowly tumbling hulk of the Farvoyer. Zakari’s simple explanation had turned out to be the right one. The freighter was basically intact but sensors indicated it was a cold, dead shell. Most of the ship’s internal space was hard vacuum and the reactors were very definitely offline. It seemed likely that the distress beacon was running off the backup hydrogen batteries, as suspected given the transmission’s power profile.
The expedition team was suited up. So was Jubal Hrada. Zakari hadn’t even bothered to argue about that. One of Sister Taya’s team had some experience with basic maintenance aboard frigates and was staying behind. It wasn’t exactly ideal and it wasn’t exactly necessary but Zakari felt it made a point of sorts. In truth, while he’d more or less expected it, actually discovering the corpse of the Lakat-Hro jump freighter out here had been shocking on a deep psychological level. Everyone felt it but the Vo-Lakat crew members felt it all the more keenly.
“Taya here. We’re ready to go; put us as close to the lock as you can and hold position.”
“Understood,” replied Zakari, breaking orbit and taking the Cheetah class frigate in to maintain a relative position five hundred meters from the working lock they’d decided was best placed for a route to the huge ship’s bridge as short as any of the others. Closer inspection of the Nomad class had revealed a lot of damage in the way of punctures, smashed locks and ports, and one or two really large tears in the fabric of the great ship’s armored outer skin.
“Going across now.” Taya Akira led the expedition team out of the Katydid and they began to file across the gap on suit jets.
“I see you. Looking good.”
“At the lock, no power but the emergency manual looks okay. Going in.”
Zakari watched as the team went inside the large lock and closed the outer door behind them. Assuming nothing had power, they’d planned to make their way to the bridge via a series of corridors, crawl-ways, and ladder shafts.
“We are in. As we expected, this part of the ship is clearly an engineering substation. We’re in a repair bay. We should be able to make good progress through the maintenance corridors from here.”
“Understood. Nothing happening outside. No change in Sleeper signals either. I guess the Farvoyer’s not very interesting to them.”
“Sleeper drones react to certain activity and signal thresholds typically. They wouldn’t bother watching this wreck even though I think they’ve probably investigated it given the distress beacon.”
“And we’re keeping our own signature profile very low, as per mission specs. You think we’ll be good then?”
“I expect so. Of course we might set something off that attracts their attention if we’re careless. If we’re allowed to concentrate on the task at hand, that shouldn’t happen though.”
Zakari got the message and didn’t reply, satisfying himself with monitoring the team’s suit and sensor pack telemetry as they progressed through the hulk’s innards. The team proceeded to the bridge without incident. Damaged as the freighter was externally, it seemed that it really wasn’t much beyond superficial strike damage. The way to the bridge was straightforward enough, even if it required some climbing due to a lack of working elevators.
“Right. We’re in the bridge. I can see an active panel. Presumably that’s the distress beacon’s interface.”
“Yes, could be any station—they can all set it off—but it’s most likely security. Usually the bridge security officer has primary responsibility for it.”
“Everything in here looks very orderly. You’re probably right. Let’s see. Yes, it’s as you say. Looks like emergency power rationing protocols are keeping just this station powered after all this time.”
“Let Jubal try entering the override codes. Assuming there’s enough juice left in the batteries, you should be able to do what you need to.”
“He’s taking care of it. Yes, we’re in. The ship is pretty much dead. Nothing to contradict your scans here. Nobody home, I’m afraid. Maybe that’s a good thing. Manifest says there are no transfer shuttles left onboard. Escape pods are all in place though. I’m thinking these people got out fairly clean.”
“Where in the hells could they go? There’s nothing but snowballs and dead rock in this system.”
“Jubal says they left a detailed message behind. He’s saying it contains a lot of sensor and navigational data in standard Lakat-Hro compressed encryption.”
“That so, Jubal?” Zakari broke into the team’s common channel having kept to a one-to-one with Taya until now.
“They’re alive, Zakari. Elder’s living breath, they’re alive and we can find them.” The engineer sounded totally stunned to Zakari.
The capsuleer was hard pressed to know what to say himself. Mentally shaking himself, he switched back to the one-to-one with Taya.
“Is he right? Is there enough to work with to actually do that?”
“I’m looking it over in a personal virtual space. If we combine this data with the reference database that the Sanctuary has been using to locate our candidate systems then we’ll probably have something. Actually, running this now I think we’re talking about a seventh candidate location that’s not even on the Sanctuary list.” Sister Taya was clearly excited.
“If you’re telling me you’ve worked out a specific wormhole signature for a system that it’s even remotely possible is where some of the Lakat-Hro escaped to then we’re going there. We’re going there right now.”
“Captain Kovalis, I am in complete agreement. This is a thread through wormhole space that we absolutely have to follow.”
Sensors indicate several outer planets of various types and an inner zone of numerous terrestrials. The innermost pair of planets show signs of shattering similar to that seen in previous candidate locations. This system stands out as extremely capacious and probes are returning multiple wormhole signatures. Could it be lucky seven?
— Zakari Kovalis, Exploration Vessel Katydid, excerpt from log made on discovery of the Thera system, YC112.07.09